A curriculum for equality?

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

Thinking of Ofsted this week, and the lack of a focus on curriculum in the current election, I remembered it was not always like this.  I can recall when discussions on the curriculum in England – in which HMI played a strong hand – were both (to coin a phrase) rich and deep.  And relatively recently, one of Blair's many governments had an interest in such matters.  This, however, did not always have positive outcomes, and HMI played no role, as they'd long been wrapped up in Ofsted's conformity blanket.

I was also reminded of this at the weekend when the BBC website ran a feature on the Finn's attempts to "drag" education into "the digital age" – and maybe also to boost their flagging PISA scores.  There, subjects it seems may be on the wane to be replaced, in part at least, by themes such as climate change,  immigration and the Romans.  The BBC notes:

"Now it is rethinking how it teaches in the digital age - seeking to place skills, as much as subjects, at the heart of what it does ... ."

Oh dear, I thought: skills!  The BBC continued:

"In August 2016 it became compulsory for every Finnish school to teach in a more collaborative way; to allow students to choose a topic relevant to them and base subjects around it.  Making innovative use of technology and sources outside the school, such as experts and museums, is a key part of it.  The aim of this way of teaching - known as project- or phenomenon-based learning (PBL) - is to equip children with skills necessary to flourish in the 21st Century, says Kirsti Lonka, a professor of educational psychology at Helsinki University.  Among the skills she singles out are critical thinking to identify fake news and avoid cyber-bullying, and the technical ability to install anti-virus software and link up to a printer."

As the BBC article makes clear, this isn't a wholesale abandoning of the idea of subjects (so far), and there are plenty of concerned voices saying, for example: [i] might not this disadvantage some students (and teachers)?  and [ii] what's the evidence that this sort of thing works?  The best responses to these questions seem to be: [i] 'of course' and [ii] 'no idea'.

I'll give the last word on this to Anneli Rautiainen of Finland's national agency for education who is quoted as saying:

"We are not too keen on metrics in this country overall so we are not planning to measure the success of it, at least not for now. We are hoping it will show in the learning outcomes of our children as well as in the international tables such as PISA."

This nonsense could have been said in Cardiff or Edinburgh whose similar reliance on wings and prayer is well documented.

All this then took my mind back to 2011, when I wrote the following after being at an event in Keele whose purpose was to address issues relating to effective teaching and learning, with particular reference to the curriculum.

The best talk by far was from Michael Young, whose input was based on a published paper.  His was a scholarly reflection on the idea of the school subject, and its importance from the point of view of equality.  Young argued that, although in a society such as ours, any curriculum is likely to be inequitable because of the nature of society, a curriculum based on concepts (ie, subjects), can be seen as a carrier of equality, as such a curriculum can treat everyone equally, unlike, say, a labour market.  In Young’s view subjects are the only basis we have as a curriculum for all.

Young said that the [then] forthcoming Gove curriculum is likely to be too dismissive of skills because it is, in part, a reaction to the last curriculum review (New Labour: 2008) which was dismissive of subjects and the formal conceptual knowledge they embody, and based too strongly on learner experience and knowledge which was seen as important as any other.  This was, said Young, more an instrument of politics, than of education.  Young stressed that a curriculum has to be about concepts that allow students to abstract from their own experience and personal knowledge and understandings, and argued that a curriculum that only emphasises experience and relevance lets down those who lack access to other knowledge at home; after all, he said, no one goes to schools to learn what they already know.  Young said that, whilst all knowledge is socially constructed, its truth is not dependent on its origins, and his view is that knowledge is best experienced through disciplines with boundary crossings (good teachers know how to do this).  Whilst the curriculum is not a given, and is open to change, an effective curriculum protects schools from passing and powerful social forces.  He reminded us that the subject-based curriculum was an enlightenment project.

I do hope Ofsted is aware of all this in its new curriculum review.  And is it too much to hope that the government after next Thursday will note that the effective consideration of issues such as sustainability depend on effective boundary crossings by teachers.

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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